ODD TRUTHS: THE CAMISARDS, REBEL PROPHETS OF LANGUEDOC 

“…the sect of the Inspired became so numerous that the valleys swarmed with them, the mountains were covered with them, and the dioceses…were overspread with such a number of prophets, that in the Cevennes and the lower Languedoc only, they were computed at eight thousand souls.”

-from Enthusiastick Impostors no Divinely-inspired Prophets, vol. I, by Richard Kingston (1707).

After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (a law that formally provided for the civil rights of French Protestants) in 1685, Catholic forces escalated their persecution of Huguenot communities. At the time, the most infamous of the remaining strongholds of Protestantism in France was located in the Cévennes mountains of Languedoc. In response to the king’s threats, Cévenol enthusiasts defiantly mounted a clandestine resistance and assembled in caves, woodlands, and canyons. Their “autonomous zones” became the stuff of legend and helped foster a homegrown culture of syncretised prophetism and anti-authoritarianism.

Cover page of A Cry from The Desart (1707).

In a word, their conventicles became crucibles of charismatic power, turning out illuminates at an incredible rate. As far as the Camisards (as these Cévenol rebels would later be called) were concerned, God was indiscriminate. Heaven doled out its spiritual gifts to men, women, and children and confirmed them with demonstrations of miracles. But the Camisard prophet-rearing programme could not last forever. Like the “neo-Gnostic” Cathars (or Albigensians), whom church-supported crusaders had mercilessly exterminated in Languedoc centuries earlier, the Camisards were no match for the entrenched strength of the Catholic establishment. Some turned violent and died engaging their enemies in guerrilla warfare. Others influenced leaders such as Paul Rabaut and Antoine Court (the father of Tarot theorist Antoine Court de Gébelin). These pastors went on to downplay ecstatic experience and promote the spread of open air assemblies.

The most celebrated of the eighteenth-century revival congregations was called the “Church of the Desert”. It met in rural areas near Nimes, and helped to change the face of French Protestantism. Still, some mystical movements continued to thrive underground—that is, according to researcher and cicerone Dr Lionel Laborie. Laborie, who has been scouring European archives for the past five years, has found evidence of flourishing transnational “millenarian networks” that interacted with the long-persecuted Camisards. We caught up with Laborie to find out more about his research and findings.

A meeting of the Church in the Desert. Image via Internet Archive.

The Custodian: On Valentine’s Day, you wrote that you had recently completed a five-year “grand tour” of European archives. Can you tell us more about your “Millenarian Networks in the Eighteenth Century” project and tease us with some of your findings/upcoming publications (without giving too much away)?

Lionel Laborie: My tweet on Valentine’s Day was a coincidence, but I like to think of it as a sign of my love story with the archives. I started this project a little more than five years ago when it became clear to me that the Camisards had capitalised on pre-existing underground networks to spread their prophetic movement. I began following their missions across Europe to study their encounters with other religious groups, reconstruct their network for the first time and shed light on the inner workings of their influential movement. This is a piecemeal project. Like most millenarian communities of this period, the Camisards never founded a Church, but tried instead to reconcile Christendom in preparation for Christ’s Second Coming and his thousand-year reign, the Millennium.

Nineteenth-century map of the Cévennes region. Image via Internet Archive.

They constantly travelled and left no centralised archive, hence their lack of visibility. The sources for my project are scattered over several countries. They consist mostly on individual letters that are not identified as part of a particular community. So far, I have worked in over forty libraries and archives across Europe to put the pieces of my puzzle back together and reveal the bigger picture. Chronologically, I now trace this “French connection” into the 1760s, when it is generally assumed they had disappeared by 1710.

Prosopographically, I have discovered connections to prominent eighteenth-century figures, including Newton, Defoe, Leibniz, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Franklin, Gainsborough and Swedenborg. I aim to publish my findings in my second book. I also have a forthcoming article (in French) that will give a preview of my project and I am currently writing another article (in English) that reveals overlaps between millenarian, commercial, and diplomatic networks in the eighteenth century.

C: How did you first come across the Camisards? Did they really believe that they were related to the Cathars?

L: My background is actually in English and American studies. I wrote my MA dissertation The Treatment of Insanity in Eighteenth-Century England and became more and more interested in the notion of “enthusiasm” in this period and its medicalisation into a religious madness. While researching the topic at the British Library, I came across the controversy around the Camisard Prophets, which rapidly became the focus of my PhD. I suppose there is also a personal dimension to it. I come from a dynasty of peasants from the south of France and I was about to move to England when I discovered their story.

Detail from William Hogarth’s engraving, Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism (1762). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As for their Cathar ancestry, this was simply a case of oral history used for propaganda purposes. There is no evidence to support it outside of the fact that Languedoc had been a hotbed of heresies and revolts for centuries. The supposed Cathar heritage became a prominent argument to rally foreign support at the height of the Camisards’ uprising in 1703-1704, but disappeared from the sources soon afterwards as the rebellion was crushed.

A gathering of the Church in the Desert. Image via Internet Archive.

C: Have you found anything that suggests the French Prophets experimented with hallucinogens?

L: Actually, yes. As I show in my book, there is evidence that the French Prophets drank posset–a hot drink made of curdled milk, ale and spices– during their assemblies. Other eye witness accounts suggest they consumed some sort of “magic” bread, liqueur and powder before falling in ecstatic trances. Like many devout Christians of the period, they also fasted regularly, sometimes for weeks, which certainly contributed to their religious experiences.

C: How were the French Prophets generally received in eighteenth-century England?

L: A short and simplistic answer would be to say: “very negatively”. However, it all depends on the sources you look at. Like most religious movements of the early modern period, we only know them through polemical literature. I was fortunate enough to have discovered many manuscript records written by the Prophets themselves, which gave me a better idea of who they really were and what they believed in. It turns out that the Prophets were socially respectable and counted clergymen, lawyers, physicians, teachers, merchants and even noblemen and fellows of the Royal Society among their followers.

Surprising as it may seem to the modern reader, this is consistent with other groups of the period like the Pietists and Quietists, for example. We should bear in mind that people knew their Bible inside out in the eighteenth century and that believing in the imminent Second Coming of Christ was not crazy. So there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the French Prophets, and millenarian groups more generally, also had many supporters, including among the elite, throughout the eighteenth century. My job as a historian is to consider this inconvenient reality and not to sweep it as “superstitious” dust under the Enlightenment carpet.

C: Have you found any substantial connection between the Prophets and intellectual occultists in nineteenth-century France? Eliphas Levi, for example was supposed to have been mentored by a cross-dressing, politically-conscious “prophet” named Simon Ganneau (also known as Mapah). Likewise, Eugene Vintras (another priestly occultist) is said to have been influenced by a visionary and royal pretender named Charles Naundorf.

L: I haven’t looked into this yet, so I can’t really say. However, there was definitely a renewed interest in the Camisards’ revolt among French and German Romantics in the nineteenth century.

C: You’ve written for The Conversation about the “progressive” and egalitarian role some prophets and millenarians have played in society by challenging the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Elsewhere you’ve also written about a correlation between “severe conditions” and prophetic leaders.  In light of this enduring history, what do you think we can say about the future of messianism and fanaticism?

L: The point I was making in this article was that the notion of “fanaticism” is a relative one. Giving women a public voice, opposing slavery and capital punishment, claiming freedom of conscience or engaging with Jews was widely considered as “fanatical” ideas in early modern Europe. Today it is normal and even enshrined in law because radical dissenters first challenged religious and secular authorities, forcing Western societies to reform themselves and evolve over time. Such challenges are healthy. That is not to say, of course, that all radical beliefs are necessarily good. Sadly, there are plenty of violent and hateful ideologies around today, and we should certainly not ignore them. Utopian and dystopian ideologies tend to thrive in times of conflict or crises because they offer hope for a “better” –another relative term– future either on earth or in an afterlife.

In this sense, I regard prophecies as an emotional genre that gives insight into the hopes and fears of their time. Whilst political and social activists continue to challenge dominant values in our secular societies today, I also think that religion will play a more important part in the twenty-first century than it did in the previous one. Don’t expect me to predict a war, market crash, natural disaster nor the next messiah – I’ve read enough prophecies to know that they almost always fail! – but I think new religious movements and charismatic spiritual leaders certainly have a future ahead of them.

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